A political proposal to impose road tolls on foreign car drivers has become a feature of the German election campaign, but the European Commission made clear yesterday (12 August) that it would not accept any measure which amounts to discrimination on the ground of nationality. EurActiv Germany contributed to this article.
Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian-Social Union (CSU) which is the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU, has been requesting for many years that road tolls be introduced for foreign car drivers, using German, or at least Bavarian roads. Over the weekend he renewed his request, adding that without such road tolls for foreigners he would refuse to sign a coalition agreement with Merkel after the election.
As Germany's general elections are approaching on 22 September, the perfect timing of the statement has been noted by political analysts. Millions of Germans are returning from holidays, angry about the road tolls they pay in neighbouring countries (including France, Austria and Switzerland), while foreigners use German highways for free.
In some countries such as France, tolls are paid for using sections of highways. In others such as Austria and Switzerland, visitors buy a weekly or monthly 'vignette' to use the country’s highways. Nationals and permanent residents of those countries normally buy a yearly vignette.
Asked to comment, Helen Kearns, spokesperson to Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas made clear that the EU executive would reject a "road toll for foreigners" as discriminatory.
“Non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality is a fundamental principle of EU law […] That means that you cannot discriminate in terms of road tolls or anything else," Kearns said.
It follows that if Germany was to introduce a road toll, the measure would also need to apply to German car drivers. But so far Merkel has rejected the idea of road tolls in Germany as well as the introduction of a general speed limit on highways, in an apparent bow to the mighty automobile industry.
Many German highways are constantly jammed with traffic and the possible introduction of road tolls would make the situation even worse. But the price of fuel in German filling stations is higher than in any neighbouring country, suggesting that Germany gets its toll from the car drivers in a different form.
According to pundits, by proposing the road toll for foreigners Seehofer does not intend to undermine Merkel, who is more popular than him even in Bavaria. Nor should his threat not to enter in agreement with her be viewed too seriously. It is generally assumed that Merkel does not take Seehofer's statements seriously and is allowing him some latitude in his own constituency.
Pundits have also questioned whether the proposed toll is aimed less at filling Bavarian state coffers than feeding anti-foreigner sentiments. The expected costs to install and run the infrastructure of road toll are supposed to be much higher than the income.
On 22 September 2013, Germans will decide in a federal election whether power remains within its current ruling conservative coalition, made up principally of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or whether to entrust it to the Social Democrats or a new coalition.
In the run up to the elections, Europe is staying off the agenda [read German elections 2013: Don’t mention Europe].